Usually when things don’t sound out loud like a good idea, they’re generally not a good idea.
In my youth, statements that met this criteria included, “Hey, let’s go see if we can find some snakes or lizards in this empty rock gully.” (Careful what you wish for!) Or, “Let’s speed up as we hit this dip in the road and see how much air we can get!”
Turns out that’s how you drop a muffler on a Ford Tempo at Cochran Street near Yosemite Avenue.
Now that I’m a responsible husband and parent, not to mention a budding endurance sports coach bent on setting a good example, such a statement means, “I wonder if after taking several months off from everyday training, I can race myself back into shape in back-to-back weeks at Wildflower long course and Ironman Santa Rosa?”
Not. A. Good. Idea.
Well, I was intrigued and deranged enough to find out. Hey, it’s all in the name of research on behalf of my athlete-clients. At least that’s what I told myself.
I also needed to go on a personal journey to rediscover the joy of triathlon racing. I LOVE coaching and sharing the knowledge I’ve accumulated from 10-plus years of endurance sports racing and continuous self-educating. And that’s what I’ve been focused on for the last year-plus with Good Wolf Coaching. As a coach-athlete, I became imbalanced though. I sought to write my own training schedule while creating more weekly plans for my growing roster, but inevitably each week I’d elect sleep instead of taking care of myself.
The truth is I think I was hiding. After disappointment at Ironman Wisconsin last year, I lost my athletic mojo. I poured so much of myself into that singular race last year – too much. When things didn’t go my way, including a late-breaking case of tendonitis in my knee that erupted early in the race, I crumbled. That’s 100% on me.
I was long overdue to snap out of my funk and rediscover joy for training and racing – without worrying about results.
The ending of one of my all-time most impactful movies, Platoon, sums up my conflicted state of mind well for the last several months: "We did not fight the enemy. We fought ourselves." For the last couple years, I was locked in a personal war trying to still be the athlete I had worked hard to become pre-Audra, while also not giving an inch (rightfully so) to remain a high-quality husband and parent too. It left me constantly exhausted, and after Wisconsin, I simply over-indexed on letting go of my athletic goals in favor of greater overall balance. If I wasn't going to race at an All-America level or have any shot whatsoever to Kona qualify, what's the point, I thought.
Saying that out loud, it's silly.
Endurance sports are an indelible part of me and make me a better, more well-rounded person not to mention leader in my career at Insomniac Games. Easing off the intensity gas is OK. Abandoning my passion to train and race is not.
So, my first step was committing to race even though I hadn’t swam pretty much since last September until the end of March, nor had I biked anything longer than 30 miles a handful of times, let alone run anything longer than seven miles.
My next step was deciding what I wanted to get out of this journey. What’s my why? I picked the following:
- Rediscover FUN
- Can the concept of racing oneself into shape actually work?
- What can I learn about racing and myself that can benefit my clients?
- Manage the tendonitis issue
Nowhere in here is mention of improving a personal best performance, or obviously qualifying for Kona. My revised goals are intrinsic and not results-driven. I think this is critical when it comes to taking a long-term view for improvement in any kind of worthy pursuit. I’ve known this to be true, but haven’t always practiced it. Taking time away from every day training helped crystalize the importance of setting goals in a wiser fashion.
Next, I decided to double-down on my association with Tower 26, the venerable triathlon swim program. In addition to being a subscriber for Gerry Rodrigues’ remote swim plan, I signed on with Triathlon Coach Jim Lubinski. I knew that being a part of a larger community would simply be more FUN and help me get back to enjoying the sport more. Getting up at 4:45 a.m. to swim a few days a week sucks. BUT being in the water with a ton of like-minded people, many of whom I had known for years already, is more than worth it. Uniting the rest of my training in similar fashion just made sense. I was craving a sense of team again. And everything you hear about Jim is true: An experienced triathlon pro, but more important a fantastic, positive, high-energy human being. We simply click, and as a coach I know that's immeasurably important in a coach-athlete relationship.
SO? How did the races go?!?
Looking back now almost three weeks, my favorite parts of the "Wildflower Experience" as it's now called (GREAT re-branding, so says the marketing guy), had little to do with actual racing. My buddies Spencer and Jon (also a Good Wolf athlete) rented an RV for the weekend at the Wildflower campsite. I will more fondly remember the commute to the race (and the fajitas at Los Agaves in Santa Barbara!), grabbing coffee with Jon at the Clif Bar Coffee Shop early Sunday morning, hitchhiking up the long hill back to the campsite post-race with a food truck driver, and grilling dinner at the RV barbecue post-race with beers.
And that's not because the race didn't go well.
Overall, my performance was about what I expected on a hot day with lots of hills and little training. Though I'm proud that I largely executed a smart approach. I swam smoothly with great sighting. My bike performance was much slower at Wildflower than when I'm in shape, but my pace and Variability Index (important indicator of consistent riding) was a steady 1.04 on a challenging course. And my run, well, I held it together. Lots more walking than my best performance at Wildflower a few years ago. But I walked with purpose -- meaning with an eye towards forcing myself to run again -- rather than just giving up and shutting things down in Wisconsin. Granted, what felt like an injury in Wisconsin made me skittish, but I could have mentally fought harder there.
This time, I was focused, PRESENT, positive from start to finish, and had fun all day. I grinded out cramps in my legs and gut for most of the run and never packed it in mentally. More important, my tendonitis never flared up. I approached the race with ZERO expectations, and wound up surprising myself a bit. Took 19th out of 91 in my age group with a controlled effort that netted a 6:02 time.
IRONMAN SANTA ROSA
Here's where things start to get more interesting. Following Wildflower, I was SORE and TIRED, as expected. Recovery took the standard 4-5 days, which put me two days out from an Ironman on tight legs and a race that I had purposefully given very little thought to until I started packing my bags Thursday morning for the drive north with my dad.
There were times when I started working out again mid-week that I felt like boxer whose arms were being lifted by a ref late in a match to see if he could still focus and fight. At our Wednesday morning Tower 26 swim, Jim literally tried to look into my eyes through my goggles on deck to see if I was fibbing when I said I could go hard for two more sets at the end. (I was TOTALLY fibbing, btw. Hung in for one and called it a day.)
I arrived to the Expo on Friday, the day before the race. In my pre-race plan, Jim had insisted I meet Matt Miller over at BASE Performance nutrition. Matt kindly loaded me up with his Amino, Salt and Hyrdo "Rocket Fuel" mix and told me to start hydrating with them immediately pre-race. I had no expectations this would work one way or the other, but in the spirit of trying something new for my athletes and because I thought it made sense to experiment for this particular race, I tried the BASE out. What did I have to lose?!
Before getting into the race results, I must note that again, I'll definitely remember my non-racing experience more than the race itself. I road-tripped up with my dad, which was a real treat. We turned on music once when driving home -- for five minutes. The rest of the 12-hour round trip, we just talked. It was awesome. I also took him to see Marvel's Avengers: Infinity War pre-race. Dissecting the movie afterwards was priceless.
I started to mentally dial-in to the race Friday night after dinner (Tomatina in Santa Rosa...MUST-dine). My dad said he could instantly tell that I had "gone somewhere else" mentally. I got quiet, focused and packed up my special needs bags an hour before bedtime. In Wisconsin, when I was traveling alone, I stared at my bags on the floor for ours and re-arranged bars and thought through all the possible scenarios where I might need that extra cartridge/gel/pair of socks/Pepto Bismal tablet, etc. TOO MUCH TIME.
Race day was phenomenal. I predicted my swim and bike times within seconds for my dad -- which were slow for me. I'm again particularly proud of how I paced the race, which was on the nose to Jim's plan for 160 normalized power watts. But my VI was 1.03 -- on a .80 Intensity Factor which is definitely an Ironman record for me in terms of effort expenditure! For a course with nearly 4,000 feet climbing and lots of wind on this particular day, that's rad. Perhaps I underestimated my functional threshold power. Either way, Jim said he's rarely seen a more consistent performance across all his coaching experience, which felt good to hear. It definitely took discipline to let so many people pass and not chase at times.
While I was admittedly suffering in stiff headwinds and crosswinds on the back half of the bike, I was noticing that my legs felt fresh and I didn't twitch with threatening cramps. That was unusual -- especially after the week I had. I put it largely out of my mind though, knowing that the run would be tough on my lack of training and recent race the week prior.
I had switched my nutrition almost exclusively to BASE for the day, and it seemed to be paying dividends. I consumed two bottles on the bike in the first 3.5 hours of my normal First Endurance Kona Mocha for liquid calories, but my body was undeniably telling me to keep the BASE coming instead. It became all about the BASE, ‘bout that BASE, ‘bout that BASE.
The transition run at IMSR is roughly .25 miles and it was a great instant litmus test for the marathon to come. Yet there I was, clicking down the street on my cleats with no pain and no discomfort let alone tightness. Hmmm.
Then the marathon. Mile 1...hmm...that felt fine. But let's not look at the watch for now. Just run. Mile 2...this feels...fine? It's gotta be around a 9-9:30 if I had to guess. Mile 3...OK, I'll take a look at the watch. Sub-8:30?! What? That can't be right. Nah. Ok, this is gonna crash soon, right?
The miles kept ticking off, and they all were 8:30 plus or minus a few seconds through...mile 16. I saw my dad twice on the run course in this span and just shook my head at him in disbelief. I didn’t understand how I was running so smoothly.
I was on pace for an all-time Ironman marathon PR. Whaaaat? I saw Matt from BASE on the course and told him I was having an amazing run and felt like I could run all day. He instructed me to grab a bottle of BASE fluid at the sponsored tent on the course. Everything was just phenomenal on the run. I couldn't hold it all together ultimately starting around mile 17 but I never dropped below low 9:30s for the rest of the race. I never cramped, never came close even. My tendonitis never phased me once all day. I simply just started to tire out -- that will improve with better fitness.
Once again, I stayed mentally present, POSITIVE, and followed my plan. I felt my body, listened to it, and made smart decisions accordingly. The results followed. And even if they hadn't, it would have been fine. I knew I had positively affected at least two people's races on the course through either helping them get through a tough moment or giving them some of my own nutrition to help their performance.
This time, unlike in Wisconsin, I enjoyed the finisher's chute and wasn't embarrassed by my effort or my performance. I crossed in 11:11, 27th place out of 223 who started the race in my age group. Funnily enough, it's my best non-Ironman Arizona inish time yet.
Yes, I'll take that result.
The most important thing I learned was something I actually needed to re-learn: If you execute a smart race plan and maintain a positive, present mental attitude, you may just surprise yourself.
Had I gone out and overcooked my bike effort on either race -- even though my Training Stress Score (measurement of how hard one actually worked overall) was well north of the typical 300 ceiling -- I think my days would have been much different.
But wait. "Ryan, you pretty much walked your half-marathon at Wildflower, and your data is indicating you DID overcook your bike effort at IMSR. Sooooo...???"
Yeah, I get it. At the same time, I never burned too many matches in either race and I always settled immediately back to my watts targets if I needed to briefly surge. More important, everything I did was calculated, in the moment, and stayed on top of nutrition especially at IMSR. Above all, I stayed in tune with my body, my goals, my plan, and my attitude. Nothing got away from me.
I learned a few other things worth noting:
- Pedal the downhillls!
If there is ONE THING I saw in both weekends of racing that mystified me, it’s the staggering number of athletes who coast down hills and aren’t pedaling. That is free speed right down the drain. It makes no sense to me. One of the ways we can ride a more consistent race is to build speed as we crest a hill, power over it, and pedal through and down the hill. I’d say 85%-plus of the athletes I saw on the course did not do this. My low VIs in both races are the direct result of consistent pedaling, and I passed a ton of athletes who should have ridden me into the ground but gave away their free speed.
- Comfort (really) matters
I typically pee while riding if it’s a race that matters to me form a PR or placement standpoint. Which means, I pee on the bike most of the time. Since I didn’t have any expectations for either race, I didn’t mind getting off the bike for a moment. What I noticed is that I felt a lot better after fully relieving myself rather than trying to get out as much as I can rocketing down hills (and not pedaling). My gut was much more relaxed and comfortable, even if I lost a few minutes in the process. Maybe that contributed to being more comfortable in general on the bike, who knows.
Comfort also meant switching to a road aero helmet for both races, since I knew the heat would climb well into the 80s for each. I'm glad I went this route as I never felt too hot on the bike.
- Training changes helped
As I sought treatment for my bum knee post Wisconsin, I spoke with a physical therapist and a strength trainer about ways to avoid tendonitis flare-ups. Both concluded that treadmill running can be a culprit due to the constant jackhammer motion that’s more straight up and down versus a forward motion outdoors on the road. I heeded that advice and have severely limited treadmill runs since. I’ve also re-incorporated strength training sessions on a weekly basis. I’ve read a few studies that conclude athletes over 40 lose 1% of their muscle mass a year, and figured while it may not help me outright, strength training probably won’t hurt me either. I think it’s helped in terms of body stabilization and simply feeling a bit stronger.
Ryan, This Write Up is Taking as Long as Your Ironman!
OK, so bottom line time.
Was this a successful experiment?
This is a qualified YES. Because I was smart about it -- how I raced, how I recovered, and how I raced again. Because I was smart about it, I had fun. That fun resulted from setting my primary intention to have fun. The priority wasn’t to PR or hunt for a Kona slot.
The caveat here is that from a pure numbers perspective, it's difficult to say whether I've raced myself into shape. When you factor in necessary recovery from a two-week spree such as the one I had, by the time I fully recovered from IMSR, my fitness level according to Training Peaks is marginally higher than it was just prior to Wildflower. I experienced a solid two weeks of fitness gains, but net-net the leap wasn't exponential.
The experience was priceless though. What I did gain, or re-gain, is my athletic self-confidence. Along with some perspective. On the drive home from Santa Rosa with my dad, I observed that my most surprisingly good Ironman performances came on days when I didn't expect anything other than staying within myself or making the best of a challenging situation -- weather, lack of training or fatigue coming off a recent Ironman such as Ironman Arizona in 2013 following a pretty rough Ironman Lake Tahoe experience. I'm still proudest of my Ironman Arizona 2015 performance on hardly any sleep with Audra being less than four months old. No idea how I pulled that off almost literally sleepwalking at times.
Conversely, my worst Ironman performances, Lake Tahoe and Wisconsin, came on days when I was too tightly wound around data, self-imposed pressure, and generally cluttering my own head space with useless mental noise.
When I say all that out loud, the choice is obvious -- find the fun and race smart.
Before signing off, I'd like to quickly thank my Good Wolf and F*ck Cancer Triathlon athletes for inspiring me to set a positive example at all times. You really helped me stay present and positive throughout my race experiences. I'd like to thank my family, especially my wife Stephanie, for being the BEST cheerleader and muse a guy could ask for. I'd like to thank all the Good Wolf team sponsors (you can find them on my website here). I'd like to thank Tower 26, Gerry and Jim and all my friends there. You've all been so encouraging and I appreciate it so much. I'd like to thank Nick, my strength coach at our work complex gym. Efren, hands of G-d...best massage therapist around (and a Good Wolf team sponsor). I'd like to thank Matt Miller at BASE, again. GAME CHANGER, dude.
Finally, I'd like to thank Lenny Garza. Wherever he is today. Lenny was my grandparents' house cleaner for decades and the first "real" person (I had never met Mark Allen and Dave Scott) who inspired me to become a triathlete. I found out in my early 30s he had completed 10 Ironmans, including the Big One in Kona. I vowed one day I'd be like him and told him as much. After finishing Ironman #10, I'm dedicating this one to Lenny. Thanks Lenny. You changed my life.